U.S. Reactions to the Death of Fidel Castro

The November 25th death of Fidel Castro has prompted comments from President-Elect Donald Trump and his aides, the Obama Administration, U.S. Senators and Representatives, U.S. editorial boards and columnists and U.S. business interests and others. All of this has fueled speculation about the future Trump Administration’s policies regarding Cuba. These topics will be explored in this post along with this blogger’s observations.

President-Elect Trump and His Aides[1]

On Saturday morning after Castro’s death the previous night, Donald Trump tweeted, “Fidel Castro is dead!” Later that same day he issued this statement:”Though the tragedies, deaths and pain caused by Fidel Castro cannot be erased, our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty. While Cuba remains a totalitarian island, it is my hope that today marks a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve.”

Vice President-Elect Mike Pence on Saturday voiced a similar reaction in a tweet: “The tyrant Castro is dead. New hope dawns. We will stand with the oppressed Cuban people for a free and democratic Cuba. Viva Cuba Libre!”

On November 28, Trump issued another tweet on the subject. He said, “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.”

These comments were corroborated by Trump’s top aides.

On Sunday, November 27, two of the aides said that Trump would demand the release of political prisoners held in Cuba and push the government to allow more religious and economic freedoms. Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, said the president-elect “absolutely” would reverse Mr. Obama’s policies if he didn’t get what he wanted from Cuba. “We’re not going to have a unilateral deal coming from Cuba back to the [U.S.] without some changes in their government. Repression, open markets, freedom of religion, political prisoners—these things need to change in order to have open and free relationships, and that’s what president-elect Trump believes, and that’s where he’s going to head.” Similar comments were made the same day by Trump’s spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway.

On Monday, November 28, Trump spokesman Jason Miller gave this more nuanced statement to reporters: “Clearly, Cuba is a very complex topic, and the president-elect is aware of the nuances and complexities regarding the challenges that the island and the Cuban people face. This has been an important issue, and it will continue to be one. Our priorities are the release of political prisoners, return of fugitives from American law, and also political and religious freedoms for all Cubans living in oppression.”

The Obama Administration[2]

President Barack Obama’s statement extended the U.S. “hand of friendship to the Cuban people” and stated that “history will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.” According to the President, Cubans “will recall the past and also look to the future. As they do, the Cuban people must know that they have a friend and partner” in America.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a similar positive statement. He extended “our condolences to the Cuban people today as they mourn the passing of Fidel Castro. Over more than half a century, he played an outsized role in their lives, and he influenced the direction of regional, even global affairs. As our two countries continue to move forward on the process of normalization — restoring the economic, diplomatic and cultural ties severed by a troubled past — we do so in a spirit of friendship and with an earnest desire not to ignore history but to write a new and better future for our two peoples.”

On November 28 White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest responded to several questions about Cuba and Castro’s death. Here are a few of those responses:

  • For the U.S., “I wouldn’t expect any impact [of Castro’s death] on the kind of progress that we’re committed to making on our end to begin to normalize relations with Cuba.”
  • “[W]e have seen . . . greater freedom for American citizens to visit Cuba, to send money to family members in Cuba, to engage in business and seek business opportunities in Cuba.  It also enhanced the ability of the [U.S.] government to maintain an embassy in Cuba where U.S. officials can more effectively not just engage with government officials in Cuba but also those activists in civil society that are fighting for greater freedoms. . . . They also facilitate the kind of people-to-people ties that we believe will be more effective in bringing freedom and opportunity to the Cuban people, something that they have long sought and been denied by the Cuban government.  And after five decades of not seeing any results, the President believed it was time to see something different. . . . [We] clearly haven’t seen all the results that we would like to see, but we’re pleased with the progress.”
  • Castro “obviously is a towering figure who had a profound impact on the history of not just his country but the Western Hemisphere.  There certainly is no whitewashing the kinds of activities that he ordered and that his government presided over that go against the very values that . . . our country has long defended.”
  • “[T]here is no doubt that we would like to see the Cuban government do more [on human rights], but this policy has not even been in place for two years.  But we certainly have enjoyed more benefits than was enjoyed under the previous policy that was in place for more than 50 years and didn’t bring about the kinds of benefits or the kinds of progress that we would like to see.”
  • “[T]hose Cuban citizens that do work in industries, like cab drivers or working in restaurants, even Airbnb owners, are benefitting from the enhanced economic activity between Cuban citizens and American citizens who are visiting Cuba.  They are paid at a higher rate, and they’re enjoying more economic activity than they otherwise would because of this policy to normalize relations with Cuba. . . . [T]here is a growing entrepreneurial sector inside of Cuba that is benefitting from greater engagement with the United States.  That’s a good thing, and that is a benefit that is enjoyed by the Cuban people directly.”
  • “[T]here certainly is no denying the kind of violence that occurred in Cuba under the watch of the Castro regime.  There has been no effort to whitewash the history, either the history between the United States and Cuba or the history of what transpired in Cuba while Mr. Castro was leading the country.”
  • “That’s why upwards of 90 percent of the Cuban people actually support this policy and they welcome the greater engagement with the United States.  They welcome the increased remittances that are provided Cuban-Americans to family members in Cuba.  They welcome the increase in travel by American citizens to Cuba.  There’s a lot to offer.  And the Cuban people certainly benefit from that kind of greater engagement.  And that’s why the President has pursued this policy.”
  • The U.S. “relationship with countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Latin America, is as strong as it’s been in generations. And all of that would be undone by the reinstitution of a policy that has failed after having been in place for more than five decades.”

The next day, November 28, Press Secretary Ernest announced that the U.S. will not send a formal delegation to Cuba to attend the Castro funeral but instead will dispatch a top White House aide and a principal Cuba-normalization negotiator, Benjamin J. Rhodes, to be joined by , the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba.

U.S. Senators and Representatives[3]

Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated, Under Fidel Castro’s brutal and oppressive dictatorship, the Cuban people have suffered politically and economically for decades, and it is my hope that his passing might turn the page toward a better way of life for the many who have dreamed of a better future for their country. Subsequently after meeting with Mr. Trump about a possible appointment as Secretary of State, Corker said Mr. Trump’s “instincts on foreign policy are obviously very, very good.”

The Ranking Member of that committee, Senator Ben Cardin (Dem., MD), said, “The news of Fidel Castro’s death brings with it an opportunity to close the deep divisions that have been suffered by Cuban society and by Cuban Americans in the U.S.  For Castro’s purported goals of social and economic development to be attained, it is now time for a half-century of authoritarian rule to give way to the restoration of democracy and the reform of a system the has denied Cuba’s citizens their basic human rights and individuals freedoms. As the United States awaits a new Administration, we must continue our partnership with the Cuban people as they seek to build a more hopeful future for their country.”

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American and Republican presidential candidate this year, said in a statement: “Sadly, Fidel Castro’s death does not mean freedom for the Cuban people or justice for the democratic activists, religious leaders, and political opponents he and his brother have jailed and persecuted. The dictator has died, but the dictatorship has not…The future of Cuba ultimately remains in the hands of the Cuban people, and now more than ever Congress and the new administration must stand with them against their brutal rulers and support their struggle for freedom and basic human rights.” Senator Bob Menendez (Dem., N.J.), a Cuban-American who has opposed Mr. Obama’s policy, issued a similar statement.

Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), who has supported normalization and is the lead author of a Senate bill to end the embargo, merely said, “Fidel Castro’s death follows more than a half century of brutal repression and misery. The Cuban people deserve better in the years ahead.”

Minnesota’s Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem.), the author of a Senate bill to end the U.S. embargo of the island, said the following: “Passing my bill with Republican Senator Jeff Flake to lift the trade embargo with Cuba would create jobs and increase exports for American farmers and businesses, and it could create unprecedented opportunity for the Cuban people. For far too long, U.S.-Cuba policy has been defined by the conflicts of the past instead of the realities of today and the possibilities for the future. The Cuban and American people are ahead of their governments in terms of wanting to see change. We need to seize this opportunity and lift the trade embargo.”

Minnesota’s other Senator, Al Franken (Dem.) said that, in the wake of Castro’s death, he hopes the Obama administration’s work to repair relations with the island nation is upheld by a new administration. “Over the past few years, we’ve made important strides to open up diplomatic relations with Cuba, and now I urge the country’s leadership to put a strong focus on improving human rights and democracy.”

On the House side, one of Minnesota’s Republican representative and an author of a bill to end the embargo, Tom Emmer, said that Congress should seize the opportunity to “assist in the transition to a democracy and market economy” in Cuba and denounced “isolation and exclusion.” He added, “The passing of Fidel Castro is yet another reminder that a new day is dawning in Cuba. As the remaining vestiges of the Cold War continue to fade, the United States has a chance to help usher in a new Cuba; a Cuba where every citizen has the rights, freedom and opportunity they deserve.”

The statement from the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan (Rep., WI), stated, “Now that Fidel Castro is dead, the cruelty and oppression of his regime should die with him. Sadly, much work remains to secure the freedom of the Cuban people, and the United States must be fully committed to that work. Today let us reflect on the memory and sacrifices of all those who have suffered under the Castros.”

U.S. Editorial Boards and Columnists[4]

The New York Times’ editorial opposed any retreat from normalization. It said such a move would be “extremely shortsighted.” The new process of normalization, it says, “has helped establish conditions for ordinary Cubans to have greater autonomy in a society long run as a police state. It has also enabled Cuban-Americans to play a larger role in shaping the nation’s future, primarily by providing capital for the island’s nascent private sector. While the Cuban government and the Obama White House continue to have profound disagreements on issues such as human rights, the two governments have established a robust bilateral agenda that includes cooperation on environmental policy, maritime issues, migration, organized crime and responses to pandemics. These hard-won diplomatic achievements have benefited both sides.”

 If, on the other hand, said the Times, the normalization process is abandoned, U.S.-Cuba “cooperation is likely to wane. That would only embolden hard-liners in the Cuban regime who are leery of mending ties with the United States and are committed to maintaining Cuba as a repressive socialist bulwark. In Mr. Trump, they may find the ideal foil to stoke nationalism among Cubans who are fiercely protective of their nation’s sovereignty and right to self-determination.”

The editorial from the Washington Post, while criticizing some aspects of President Obama’s opening to Cuba, stated U.S. policy should “align itself with the hopes of ordinary Cubans and the legitimate demands of the island’s pro-democracy movements. That does not necessarily mean reversing the renewal of diplomatic relations and relaxed restrictions on the movement of people and goods; most Cubans still want that. But it should mean that official exchanges with the regime, and any concessions that benefit it, should be tied to tangible reforms that benefit the public: greater Internet access, expansion of space for private business and tolerance of critical speech and assembly by such groups as the Ladies in White.”

Conservative columnists and commentators welcomed Fidel’s death. George Will hoped, if not reasonably expected, “to have seen the last of charismatic totalitarians worshiped by political pilgrims from open societies. Experience suggests there will always be tyranny tourists in flight from what they consider the boring banality of bourgeois society and eager for the excitement of sojourns in ‘progressive’ despotisms that they are free to admire and then leave. Carlos Eire, a Cuban exile, author and the T.L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University, suggested a 13-point negative epitaph for Fidel’s tomb. The first point was: ”He turned Cuba into a colony of the Soviet Union and nearly caused a nuclear holocaust.” The last point was this: “He never apologized for any of his crimes and never stood trial for them.”

Another Washington Post columnist, Kathleen Parker, agreed that Fidel was a terrible dictator, but argued that Mr. Trump “should understand that Fidel Castro loved the embargo more than anyone because, as ever, he could blame the [U.S.] for his failures. For Trump to fall into this same trap [by keeping the embargo] would be a postmortem gift to Castro and breathe new life into a cruel legacy — the dictator’s final triumph over the [U.S.] and the several American presidents who could never quite bury him.”

U.S. Business Interests and Others[5]

Important interests that typically are regarded as important by Republicans are arguing against any retreats from the Obama Administration’s pursuit of normalization of Cuba relations

First, many U.S. companies are now deeply invested in Cuba under the current administration’s policy. These companies include major airlines, hotel operators and technology providers, while big U.S. phone carriers have signed roaming agreements on the island. “I think the American business community would be strongly opposed to rolling back President Obama’s changes, and strongly in favor of continuing the path toward normalization of economic and diplomatic relations,” said Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council.

Second, the U.S. farming industry is strongly supportive of normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations. For example, Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, does not want the next administration to take any steps that would put U.S. farmers at a further disadvantage in the Cuban market. “Every other country in the world has diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba, and what we don’t want to do is lose that market share to the European Union, Brazil, Argentina.” Mr. Paap added that U.S. market share in Cuba has decreased in recent years as other countries are able to provide better financing.

But agricultural producers across the country, from rice producers in Louisiana to Northwest apple farmers to Kansas wheat growers have pushed for more, including lifting a ban prohibiting Cuba from buying American agricultural goods with U.S. credit.

Cuba’s wheat consumption is about 50 million barrels a year, said Daniel Heady, director of governmental affairs at the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers. Although not a huge market, “it’s right off the coast and it would be extremely easy for us to deliver our product.” “It is something that Kansas farmers are extremely interested in,” Heady said. “In a world of extremely depressed commodity prices, especially wheat, 50 million bushels looks extremely good right now.”

Republican governors from Texas, Arkansas and elsewhere have led trade delegations to Cuba, along with their state farm bureaus and chambers of commerce.

A U.S. journalist with extensive experience with Cuba, Nick Miroff, echoed these thoughts. He said, “A return to more hostile [U.S.-Cuba] relations . . . could also bring a new crackdown in Cuba and further slow the pace of Raúl Castro’s modest liberalization  measures at a time of stalling economic growth. Hard-liners in Cuba’s Communist Party would gladly take the country back to a simpler time, when the antagonism of the United States — not the failure of government policies — was to blame for the island’s problems, and the threat of attack, real or imagined, was used to justify authoritarian political control.’

Moreover, according to a Wall Street Journal report, any U.S. abandonment of normalization with Cuba “could drive a new wedge between Washington and Latin America . . . not only by leftist allies of Cuba like Venezuela and Bolivia but also by conservative governments in Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Colombia. It would also likely complicate regional cooperation on a range of issues, from immigration to security and anti-drug efforts.”

In Miami, many of the island’s exiles and their children and grandchildren took to the streets, banging pots and pans, waving American and Cuban flags, and celebrating in Spanish: “He’s dead! He’s dead!”

Meanwhile in faraway Minnesota, even though it has relatively few Cuban exiles, celebrated its Cuban connections. They range from festivals and restaurants in the Twin Cities that preserve and highlight Cuban culture. Its politicians in Washington, D.C. have been leaders in efforts to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, citing the potential for economic and political advancements and job growth. Christian communities in Minnesota also value their religious and moral obligations to Cubans. Cuba’s expanded Mariel Port could carry Minnesota-made goods. Other Minnesota-based companies, including Sun Country Airlines, Radisson Hotels and Cargill, could benefit from lifting the embargo.

Last year the Minnesota Orchestra took a historic trip to Cuba as the first U.S. orchestra to perform there since Obama began negotiations in 2014. Next June, some Orchestra members will perform in Cuba again along with Minnesota Youth Symphonies. They also will be joined by Cuban-American jazz musician, Ignacio “Nachito” Herrera, and his wife, who works as an attorney. Herrera grew up during the Cuban Revolution and credits Castro’s leadership for the career opportunities he and his wife have achieved. Indeed, Herrera met Castro in the 1980s while being recognized in a Classic World Piano competition. Castro was humble, Herrera said, and deeply curious about his accomplishments.

Concluding Observations

This blog consistently has applauded the U.S. pursuing normalization with Cuba. The death of Fidel Castro does not change that opinion and advocacy. Fundamentally I agree with President Obama that the 50-plus years of U.S. hostility towards Cuba has not worked—it has not persuaded or forced Cuba to change its ways and it has interfered with our having friendly relations with countries throughout the world, especially in Latin America.[6]

Indeed, the countries of the Western Hemisphere in their Summits of the Americas have made it clear to fellow member the U.S. that they would no longer reluctantly acquiesce in the U.S. desire to exclude Cuba from such Summits, and at the last such gathering in 2015, after the announcement of U.S.-Cuba normalization they praised both countries for this move.[7]

The broader world disapproval of the U.S. hostility towards Cuba is shown by the annual overwhelming approvals of resolutions condemning the U.S. embargo of the island by the U.N. General Assembly. Nor should the U.S. continue to ignore its very large contingent liability to Cuba for its alleged damages from the embargo. (The U.S., of course, disputes this contingent liability, but prudence for any nation or entity facing such a large contingent liability dictates cutting off that risk by stopping the behavior that allegedly triggers the risk.)[8]

Opponents of normalization usually point to Cuban deficiencies on human rights and democracy. But such opposition fails to recognize or admit that the U.S. does not have a perfect record on these issues, including this year’s U.S. election and efforts at voter suppression and the U.S. indirect election of the president and vice president via the Electoral College. Moreover, such opponents also fail to recognize or admit that at least some Cuban limits on dissent and demonstrations undoubtedly are triggered by their fear or suspicion that the U.S. via its so-called covert or undercover “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba is financing or otherwise supporting these efforts at regime change on the island. Finally as part of the efforts at normalization the U.S. and Cuba have been having respectful dialogues about human rights issues.[9]

Another issue sometimes raised by opponents of normalization is Cuba’s failure to provide financial compensation to U.S. persons for Cuba’s expropriation of their property in the early years of the Revolution. But such criticism fails to recognize that Cuba has paid compensation to persons from other countries for such expropriation, that it is in Cuba’s interest to do the same for U.S. persons, that the two countries have been respectfully discussing this issue as well, and there is no reason to expect that this issue cannot be resolved peacefully.[10]

Opponents of normalization also seem to believe or assume that only the U.S. and Cuba are involved in these issues. That, however, is not true. Perhaps precipitated by the December 2014 announcement that Cuba and the U.S. had agreed to seek normalization and reconciliation, other countries, especially the members of the European Union, have been accelerating their efforts to resolve differences with Cuba so that the U.S. will not beat them to gain competitive advantages with the island. China also is another competitor.[11]

Finally Cuba’s current major ally, Venezuela, obviously is near collapse and being forced to reduce its support of Cuba, thereby threatening Cuba’s stability and viability. The U.S. does not want to see Cuba become a failed state 90 miles away from the U.S. Such a situation is even more dire today according to Tom Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. He asserts at page 270 that it “may even be more difficult [for inhabitants of a failed state to reconstitute itself] in the age of accelerations. The lifelong learning opportunities you need to provide to your population, the infrastructure you need to take advantage of the global flows [of information], and the pace of innovation you need to maintain a growing economy have all become harder to achieve. . . . Catching up is going to be very, very difficult.”

For the U.S., once again, to act like an arrogant bully towards Cuba will not achieve any good result. All U.S. citizens interested in Cuba’s welfare and having good relations with the U.S. need to resist any efforts by the new Administration to undo the progress of the last two years.

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[1] Assoc. Press, Trump Slams Recount Push as ‘a Scam,’ Says Election Is Over, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2016); Reuters, Trump Says He Will do All He Can to Help Cuban People, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2016); Assoc. Press, Vice-President-Elect Pence Says ‘New Hope Dawns’ for Cuba, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2016); Assoc. Press, Trump Aides Say Cuban Government Will Have to Change, N.Y. Times (Nov. 27, 2016); Flaherty, Trump aides say Cuban government will have to change, StarTrib. (Nov. 27, 2016); Schwartz & Lee, Death of Fidel Castro May Pressure Donald Trump on Cuba Promises, W.S.J. (Nov. 27, 2016); Mazzei, Trump pledges to ‘terminate’ opening to Cuba absent ‘better deal,’ Miami Herald (Nov. 28, 2016); Cave, Ahmed & Davis, Donald Trump’s Threat to Close Door Reopens Old Wounds in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2016).

[2]   White House, Statement by the President on the Passing of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Kerry: The Passing of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 11/28/16; White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 11/29/16; Harris, Obama to Send Aide to Fidel Castro’s Funeral, N.Y. Times (Nov. 29, 2016).

[3] Sen. For. Rel. Comm., Corker Statement on the Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Griffiths, Corker praises Trump as State Department speculation continues, Politico (Nov. 29, 2016; Sen. For. Rel. Comm, Cardin Statement on the Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Rubio, Rubio: History Will Remember Fidel Castro as an Evil, Murderous Dictator (Nov. 26, 2016); Menendez, Senator Menendez on Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Flake, Flake Statement on the Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Ryan, Statement on the Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016);The latest: US House Leader Urges Remembering Castro Cruelty, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2016); Klobuchar, Klobuchar Statement on Passing of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Emmer, Emmer Statement on Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016).

[4] Editorial, Threatening Cuba Will Backfire, N.Y. Times (Nov. 29, 2016); Editorial,Editorial, Fidel Castro’s terrible legacy, Wash. Post (Nov. 26, 2016); Fidel Castro’s demise can’t guarantee freedom for the people of Cuba, Wash. Post (Nov. 28, 2016); Will, Fidel Castro and dead utopianism, Wash. Post (Nov. 26, 2016); Eire, Farewell to Cuba’s brutal Big Brother, Wash. Post (Nov. 26, 2016); Parker, Don’t give Fidel Castro the last laugh, Wash. Post (Nov. 29, 2016). Eire is the author of Learning To Die in Miami: Confessions of A Refugee Boy (2010) and Waiting for Snow in Havana (2003).

[5] DeYoung, Trump’s threat to terminate opening to Cuba may draw opposition from business, Republican states, Wash. Post (Nov. 29, 2016); Miroff, Cuba faces renewed tensions with U.S., but without Fidel Castro, its field marshal, Wash. Post (Nov. 28, 2016); Dube & Johnson, Donald Trump’s Line on Cuba Unsettles Latin America, W.S.J. (Nov. 28, 2016); Klobuchar, Minnesota Artists, Leaders Reflect on Castro’s Legacy (Nov. 26, 2016);  Miroff & Booth, In wake of Castro’s death, his legacy is debated, Wash. Post (Nov. 28, 2016).

[6] See List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[7] Previous posts have discussed the Seventh Summit of the Americas in April 2015. https://dwkcommentaries.com/?s=Summit+of+the+Americas.

[8] Previous posts have discussed the U.N. General Assembly resolutions on the embargo in 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2016 and the suggested international arbitration to resolve the disputes about Cuba’s damage claims resulting from the embargo. (See posts listed in “U.S. Embargo of Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[9] See posts listed in “U.S. Democracy Promotion in Cuba,” “U.S. & Cuba Normalization, 2014-2015” and “U.S. & Cuba Normalization, 2015-2016” sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[10] See posts listed in “U.S. & Cuba Damage Claims” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[11] See list of posts in “Cuba & Other Countries” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

Possible Amendments to the New Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) 

As reported in a prior post, on September 28, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly voted to override President Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) even though the Chair (Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN)) and Ranking Member (Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., MD)) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senator Diane Feinstein expressed deep reservations about the wisdom of this law.

Immediately after the adoption of this law, Senator Corker and others expressed desires to change the new law.[1] Let us look at these concerns and efforts to amend JASTA.

Certain Senators’ Concerns

Senator Corker said he thought the issues could be addressed in the “lame-duck” /Senator session of Congress after the November election and that possible fixes included limiting the bill’s scope just to the Sept. 11 attacks, changing some of the technical definitions or thresholds in the bill and establishing a tribunal of experts who ‘could first determine if there was culpability there.’”

Without specifics Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said there could be “potential consequences” of JASTA that are “worth further discussing.” House Speaker Paul Ryan said Congress might have to “fix” the legislation to protect U.S. troops in particular. Trent Lott, a former Republican Senate Majority Leader and now a lobbyist for the Saudis, said, “I do feel passionately this is a mistake for a variety of reasons, in terms of threats to troops, diplomats, sovereignty, there’s serious problems here. Hopefully we can find a way to change the tenor of this.”

 Saudi Arabia’s Reactions

On October 3 Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet released a statement criticizing the adoption of JASTA.[2] It said the new law was “a source of concern to the international community in which relations are based on the principle of equality and sovereign immunity, as this law came to weaken the immunity of the world guaranteed by the United Nations, its agencies and councils which were formed to preserve the legal sovereignty of all its member countries across the universe. Weakening this sovereign immunity will affect all countries, including the United States. [The cabinet] expressed hope that wisdom will prevail and that the U.S. Congress would take the necessary steps to avoid the bad and dangerous consequences that may result from the JASTA legislation.”

On October 20 U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. Afterwards the two of them held a joint announcement at the State Department.[3] With respect to JASTA, Kerry said:

  • We “did discuss [JASTA’s] very negative impact on the concept of sovereign immunity. And the interests of . . . [the U.S.] are at risk as a result of the law that was passed in Congress in the final days. And we discussed ways to try to fix this in a way that respects and honors the needs and rights of victims of 9/11 but at the same time does not expose American troops and American partners and American individuals who may be involved in another country to the potential of a lawsuit for those activities. Sovereign immunity is a longstanding, well-upheld standard of law, and unfortunately this legislation – unintentionally, I think – puts it at great risk and thereby puts our country at great risk. So we’re talking about ways to try to address that.”

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s comments about JASTA were the following:

  • “I . . . want to add my voice to what the Secretary said about the importance of sovereign immunities. Sovereign immunities have been a cardinal principle of the international legal order that was established after the Treaty of Westphalia in the 1600s. The objective is to bring order to the international system. And where sovereign immunities are diluted, the international system becomes chaotic, and no country, and no government, is able to conduct its official business without having to worry about lawsuits. The United States, as the country with the biggest footprint in the world, of course has the most to lose by this, because you have operations all the way from Japan to South America to the Pacific, and I think that is why the vast majority of countries have come out vehemently and very strongly against . . . JASTA . . . for its dilution of sovereign immunities. And there have been a number of countries that are looking at reciprocal measures, and if this issue takes hold, we will have chaos in the international order, and this is something that no country in the world wants.”

However, neither gentleman provided details about so-called “fixes for JASTA.

Moreover, there already are “9/11 lawsuits” brought by 9,000 plaintiffs against Saudi Arabia consolidated in federal court in the Southern District of New York in Manhattan that had been dismissed, but will be resurrected under JASTA. Already there is talk about potential discovery and other pre-trial activity in the cases. This includes plaintiffs’ efforts to reinstate Saudi Arabia as a defendant. And on September 30 a new Sept. 11 lawsuit against Saudi Arabia was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the widow and daughter of a Navy officer killed in the attack on the Pentagon.

However, Raj Bhala, a professor of international and comparative law at the University of Kansas Law School, opines that the “deck remains stacked against the plaintiffs” with their biggest challenge: persuading a court there is solid evidence of a direct Saudi government role in the 9/11 attacks.[4]

Other Reactions

On October 10 China’s Foreign Ministry said China opposes all forms of terrorism and supports the international community on anti-terrorism cooperation, but that such efforts should “respect international law and principles of international relations, including fundamental principles of nations’ sovereign equality.” Therefore, every country “should not put . . . [its] domestic laws above international law and should not link terrorism with any specific country, religion or ethnicity.” The Foreign Ministry also noted that China’s people and assets at home and around the world face a growing risk from terrorism, but it has a foreign policy of non-interference in other countries’ affairs.[5]

Many other countries oppose JASTA. France considers that laws such as JASTA would lead to a “legal chaos” at the international level. Russia has slammed the legislation as undermining international law. Turkey views JASTA as a law against the principle of individual criminal responsibility for crimes and expects it would be reversed shortly. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry warned that JASTA could have a dire effect on US international relations.[6]

Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said JASTA was an example of “legislative fecklessness.” Immediately after the bill’s passage, Republican congressional leaders talked about the need to “fix” the bill and tried to blame President Obama for the problems by falsely claiming he had not made a strong case against the bill. But the president had vetoed the bill, publicly articulated the reasons for the veto and personally and through Administration officials had warned congressional leaders about the adverse implications of the bill. Thus, a “’stupid bill’ that adversely affects American national interests is now law.”[7]

A New York Times editorial, agreeing with Professor Drezner, said that the adoption of the bill over a presidential veto, was a new example of congressional “craven incompetence” and that JASTA should be repealed. A Wall Street Journal editorial also called for repeal.[8]

Conclusion

The only specific suggestions of ways to “fix” JASTA that I have seen are Senator Corker’s. The idea of creating a new tribunal presumably to assess whether a specific state has sponsored or aided and abetted acts of terrorism in the U.S. sounds too complicated, but there are not enough details about such an idea to have a detailed response. The same is the case for his other suggestion about changing some of the technical definitions or thresholds in the bill. The idea of limiting the law to 9/11, however, might be a way to see how such a law works out in practice before it is expanded to include any other situation as the law now stands.

Instead, I offer the following initial suggestions for amending JASTA on the assumption that repeal is not currently feasible:

  1. Assign exclusive jurisdiction over all civil actions under JASTA to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and require or suggest that all such cases be assigned to a designated District Judge. That will assist the U.S. Departments of State and Justice, the White House and foreign governments in monitoring any such actions and eliminate the risk of inconsistent decisions at the District Court level and at the level of the federal courts of appeal. There is no reason to have any other federal courts involved in such cases and absolutely no reason to have any state courts so involved.
  2. Make the U.S. Government a necessary party to any such civil action.
  3. There should be limitations on permissible pre-trial discovery in such cases. Here is one way to do so. After answers to any complaint in any such civil action have been served and filed and before any other proceedings in the case, require the U.S. Government to provide its opinion as to whether the foreign state in any such case has sponsored or aided and abetted any acts of terrorism in the U.S. If the U.S. Government states that the foreign state has not sponsored or aided and abetted any act of terrorism in the U.S., then the civil action should be dismissed. If the U.S. Government states that the foreign state has so sponsored or aided and abetted, then the case should proceed to assess damages with appropriate discovery. If the U.S. Government states that it does not know whether the foreign state has so sponsored or aided and abetted, then the U.S. Government should propose a plan for discovery in the case to attempt to resolve that question as quickly and as inexpensively as possible with a prohibition of any discovery that is not included in such a plan.

Now we wait to see what bills will be introduced in Congress to amend JASTA.

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[1] Reuters, U.S. Lawmakers May change Sept. 11 Law After Rejecting Veto, N.Y. times (Sept. 30, 2016); Peterson & Lee, Congress Looks to Narrow Bill Allowing Terror Victims to Sue Foreign Governments, W.S.J. (Sept. 30, 2016).

[2] Reuters, U.S. Sept. 11 Law Weakens International Relations, Saudi Cabinet Says, N.Y. Times (Oct. 3, 2016); Saudi Press Agency, Press Release regarding JASTA (Oct. 4, 2016); Hubbard, Angered by 9/11 Victims Law, Saudis Rethink U.S. Alliance, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2016).

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Remarks with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir After Their Meeting (Oct. 20, 2016) Reuters, U.S. Urges Houthis to Keep Ceasefire, Discusses JASTA With Saudi, N.Y. Times (Oct. 20, 2016). No additional details about any proposed “fixes” to JASTA were provided in response to questions at the State Department’s October 21 Daily Press Briefing.

[4] Mazzetti, Claims of Saudi Role in 9/11 Appear Headed for Manhattan Court, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2016); Bravin, Lawyers Move Quickly After Congress Enacts Bill Allowing Suits Against Saudi Arabia, W.S.J. (Sept. 30, 2016).

[5] Reuters, China Backs Sovereign Immunity After U.S. Sept. 11 Bill Becomes Law, N.Y. Times (Oct. 10, 2016).

[6] Fotouh, JASTA: Real threats and hidden opportunities, Egypt Daily News (Oct. 24, 2016).

[7] Drezner, The unbearable idiocy of Congress, Wash. Post (Sept. 30, 2016).

[8] Editorial, Congress Has Itself to Blame for 9/11 Bill, N.Y. Times (Sept. 30, 2016); Editorial, Instant Senate Remorse, W.S.J. (Sept. 30, 2016).

House Speaker Ryan Pledges To Keep U.S. Embargo of Cuba 

On October 18, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Paul Ryan (Rep., WI), issued a press release with respect to the Obama Administration’s new relaxation of regulations regarding U.S. trade with Cuba that were discussed in a previous post[1]

Ryan said, “The Castros continue to jail pro-democracy activists at a rate of hundreds per month, yet it is full steam ahead for the Obama administration’s efforts to appease this oppressive regime. President Obama’s latest move will only help finance the Castros’ grip on power and jeopardize the intellectual property rights of American businesses. As the past two years of normalizing relations have only emboldened the regime at the expense of the Cuban people, I fully intend to maintain our embargo on Cuba.”

This, in the opinion of this blogger, is an unfortunate development.[2] We will discover whether this was an electioneering maneuver to help Republican congressional candidates in some districts or a true statement of Ryan’s opinions and intended actions if the Republicans retain control of the House in this November’s election.

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[1] Ryan, Statement on Administration’s Unilateral Move to Lift Trade Restrictions on Cuba (Oct. 18, 2016); Reuters, Top Republican Pledges to Maintain Cuba Trade Embargo, N.Y. Times (Oct. 18, 2016).

[2] This blog has persistently called for ending the embargo. See posts listed in “U.S. Embargo of Cuba” in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries: Topical: CUBA.